It’s nearly the beginning of March and the temperature is finally picking up. It’s often overcast and the melting snow creates a wet mess of the dirt it coated a few months ago. The outside is not a particularly pretty place at this time of the year, yet I welcome rainy days as the precipitation will eventually wash away the bleakness and – more importantly – the copious amounts of salt used to coat the roads. When the skies finally get tired of crying, that’ll signal the start of the motorcycle season.
All types of engines will roar back to life after their hibernation. Mechanical buzzing, rumbling, and shrieking noises will resonate in the air. Soon enough, parking lots will be filled with eager students ready to throw their leg over a beginner-friendly motorcycle and get coaching tips from experienced riders. And, without fail, one ‘sage’ piece of advice will emanate from the instructor’s mouth:
It’s not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
To that, I eloquently say: B-fuckin-S.
The topic in question is that of accidents. Whether it’s getting hit or hitting something newbies are conditioned to believe they will go down. This isn’t unique to motorcycles either. At 16 I began attending sessions to get my driver’s license, and the teacher said the same thing. “Statistically each one of you will be involved in an accident at some point. It’s not if, it’s when“.
Well you know what? 10+ years after the fact I am still accident-free. I don’t even feel nervous about saying it out loud, nor do I feel compelled to knock on a piece of wood after typing this out. Yes, I understand I have many more years of driving left to prove myself wrong but – and this may surprise you – I have no intent of getting into a crash on any mode of transportation I use.
I don’t mean to minimize the inherent dangers of riding a motorcycle. The same goes for riding a bicycle, driving a car… even walking downtown. It is important to know that there can be very real and serious consequences for these activities. However, I believe that trainers will precipitously drop this phrase simply because it’s edgy and effective at getting their students’ attention. There definitely is credence to the words but they do not have to be used as a scare tactic.
A new rider getting ready to go out on public roads for the first time has a lot to think about. Modulating the clutch. Staying in the correct part of the lane. Flicking on the turn signals. Avoiding dangerous potholes. Imagine doing all of this with the added notion that you will crash. Will it be now? Will it be on the next ride? You simply don’t know. Worry about it too much and you will be responsible for causing your own accident.
That’s why I don’t like the “not if, but when” mentality. It can create undue pressure on a rider who might otherwise be skilled enough to pilot a bike and stay out of harm’s way. On the flip side it can also normalize the act of being involved in a crash and lessen a rider’s reaction to a dangerous situation if they believe that “it’s going to happen one day so why not now?” There are more effective ways to deliver this message.
There’s one lesson I learned as a kid that I’ve remembered and applied in my day-to-day life. It came courtesy of one of my snowboard instructors when I taking an advanced course that had us mentor younger students. She said: “Always speak in positive terms. Tell them what to do instead of what not to do.” For instance, rather than saying “don’t keep your legs straight” it is more effective to say “bend your knees”. Rather than saying “it’s not if, but when” it is more effective to say “be vigilant, maintain a safe distance between cars around you, and if you see someone driving erratically get out of their way”.
This is the formula I employ when on the road. I’m always looking at least 3 cars ahead to predict sudden traffic changes. I do my best to create and keep a buffer around me, and if I have a weird feeling about a vehicle I will slow down to give them room or speed up to pass them. If passing them requires that I raise my speed above the posted limit then so be it. This strategy has yet to fail me.
If you plan on taking your motorcycle safety course soon and your instructor proposes the “not if, but when” mantra I implore you to ask them about their own experience. When they argue that nothing could have been done in their circumstance, ask them if it’s wise to give new riders such a grim outlook instead of offering riding tips to avoid those situations.